The liquidation of our commonwealth continues to gather steam. Several months after I published an article focusing on the sale of the downtown post office in Modesto, California, I learned that my own post office might soon be on the market.
Nearly a century old, the Architect of the Treasury Department modeled the downtown Berkeley Post Office on the Brunneleschi’s Renaissance orphanage in Florence, Italy, giving this university town one of the handsomest federal facilities in California.
Though, like the Modesto post office, Berkeley’s post office is not a New Deal structure, it contains two works of art from the New Deal period: a mural of Berkeley’s past by Suzanne Scheuer, and a sculptural relief by David Slivka.
There is no question that the U.S. Postal Service is in a state of crisis although many observers believe that crisis is more manufactured by those opposed to any government services than by competition from the Internet or private carriers. There can be no doubt, however, that many of the thousands of post offices scheduled for sale, closure, and possibly demolition sit on valuable real estate. Over 1100 of those facilities were built during the New Deal. They are often the finest buildings in many small towns, stately representatives of the federal government. Many contain sculpture, murals, and customized furniture whose fate is uncertain as the flags are lowered and post offices are thrown on the market.
U.S. post offices serve as vital gathering places and stimulants for downtown businesses that stand to be eliminated as post offices move to suburban shopping malls and are automated. Protests have been held as post offices have closed in Ukiah, Venice, and La Jolla., California. All contain New Deal art.
Opposition is growing to the progressive liquidation of the U.S. Postal Service and to the selloff of the buildings and art that were paid for and continue to serve the American public. New York University professor Steve Hutkins has devoted himself to stopping the privatization of this public resource, creating an invaluable website carrying information about community efforts around the country to save threatened post offices, as well as critiques of the ostensible crisis.
Rather than providing fewer services, for example, some suggest that the USPS could save itself and its invaluable assets by providing more services— specifically by reviving the postal savings bank that Americans once had and many other nations still enjoy.
One of the postal workers on the sculptural relief in the Berkeley post office’s loggia holds up a letter on which David Slivka carved a barely visible inscription. The return address is “All Mankind;” the recipient “Truth Abode on Freedom Road.”
Slivka was, I believe, making a statement about the vital role played by this trusted government service that facilitates communication among all its citizens. We must care for those abodes, for they belong to those of us traveling freedom’s road.
Gray Brechin is Project Scholar for The Living New Deal.
UPDATE: In a letter to a Senate panel that oversees the Postal Service, Sen. Bernie Sanders and 26 other senators suggested specific measures to stop wholesale closings of rural post offices and mail processing centers, and spare many of the 220,000 jobs that the Postal Service wants to cut.